- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2007

Director Jennifer L. Nelson creates such a convivial and enveloping environment in August Wilson’s “Jitney” that the audience feels as if it’s on the other side of the gypsy cab station’s dilapidated couch, swapping jibes and yarns with the drivers.

“Jitney,” a production at Ford’s Theatre in association with the African Continuum Theatre Company, is the 1970s play in the late playwright’s 10-work cycle depicting 20th-century life for blacks decade by decade. With the exception of Chicago-based “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” all of the dramas are set in Mr. Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh in the city’s Hill District neighborhood.

Mr. Wilson was raised by his mother, a domestic worker, in a two-room house next to a jitney station in the Hill District, and his familiarity with this male-dominated society is evident in the play’s winding conversations and aura of long-standing camaraderie.

Everybody has his role to play at Becker’s Car Service. Becker (Frederick Strother) is the station’s upstanding, tolerant patriarch. Through personal example and the bitter life lessons he imparts, he helps the fiery upstart Youngblood (KenYatta Rogers) make mature decisions. Becker also runs interference in the antagonistic relationship between Youngblood and the gossipy meddler Turnbo (Doug Brown), who cannot resist getting into everybody’s business.

Fielding (David Emerson Toney) is the neighborhood drunk, Doub (Cleo Reginald Pizana) serves as the station’s philosopher, Philmore (Addison Switzer) is the giddily philandering man about town, and numbers runner Shealy (Michael Anthony Williams) keeps the community entranced by dreams of hitting big money.

“Jitney” centers on the bitter reunion between Becker and his adult son Booster (Craig Wallace), recently sprung from the state pen for murdering a white woman who lied about the true nature of their relationship.

Becker wants nothing to do with the son who shamed him, but Booster insists on making his father see why he took such a violent path and why he chose to break from conventional society — a shattering confrontation at the end of the first act in which father and son attack each other with keening howls of “Where were you?”

“Jitney” frames an intergenerational clash that pits the postwar era against the emerging thug-life culture of the late 1970s as the young men turn away from the values of their elders, whose idea of success was a house, a pension and serving in the church. The younger generation embraces flash and notoriety, the idea of being bad as good. Becker, though, points out a disturbing truth — that these young men are just not right with themselves; they are consumed by self-hatred.

As with most of Mr. Wilson’s work, “Jitney” contains thickets of words that flutter and swoop with the musicality of jazz. Repetition establishes the play’s clattering rhythm, both in the constantly ringing phone and the echoing dialogue.

The abundant dialogue and speeches here are among the playwright’s most muscular, the manly repartee infused with humor and macho preening — a motif reinforced by Reggie Ray’s flamboyant superfly costumes. Tony Cisek’s shambling storefront set conveys such lived-in authenticity you practically can smell the gas fumes.

“Jitney” immerses you in the insular world of men to such an extent that the play’s sole female character, Rena (Jessica Frances Dukes), is almost an intrusion as she pleads for her boyfriend Youngblood to take some responsibility.

The idea of a neighborhood car service may seem as quaint as the rotary pay phone hanging on the wall at Becker’s, but “Jitney” is a warm and timeless evocation of men who depend on each other for their livelihood and as their touchstones to truth.

***

WHAT: “Jitney” by August Wilson

WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, noon Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 18.

TICKETS: $10 to $52

PHONE: 202/347-4833

MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS

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